Wanderlei Silva is a man caught in the margins. He's too big to comfortably make 185, and too small to really compete with the monsters of 205. He's powerful enough to knock out Brian Stann at his advanced age, yet he's shown enough vulnerabilities through aging that you're nearly forced to watch his fights with clenched teeth. He wins enough to remain relevant, yet not enough to truly be a contender.
It's all kind of head-scratching, even though when fight time comes, we never seem to have a problem pushing those things aside for the entertainment value he provides. Silva has been a major name in mixed martial arts for well over a decade, and he's produced some of the sport's great moments. In his heyday, he was good enough that he was willing to go head's up with heavyweights like Mirko Cro Cop. He knocked out Quinton "Rampage" Jackson twice. He held the PRIDE belt for nearly six years. Yet we've watched him begin his fade before our eyes.
Before UFC on FUEL 8, he'd plodded along to a 3-5 UFC record, with brutal knockouts at the hands of Chris Leben and Jackson. He also had the disappointment of losing bouts at 185, 195 and 205 pounds in a four-fight span. He's been maddeningly inconsistent and spectacularly exciting.
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But if we're going to be realists about the whole thing, we have to ask ourselves where exactly he's going. Most fighters are building towards something -- a title, in the best circumstances. Others are just trying to build towards a bigger promotion or their first big payday. Silva has pretty much done it all already. He is, in some ways, just hanging on, hoping to recapture his old magic.
He did that on Saturday in Saitama, Japan, a place that he says, makes him feel young. It is, of course, a fleeting feeling. The body ages and the clock never relents. Seconds tick away, then years, then we wake up and realize that we are middle-aged and unable to do the things that were once second nature. But every once in a while, we surprise ourselves. We feel young and spry, and anything seems possible.
It was one of those nights for Silva, who could not help but wax nostalgic in a place where he forged many pieces of his estimable history.
"I feel healthy," he said after his win. "A couple injuries. It's normal, no? Sooner or later I’m going to need to stop this job. But I’m happy for this feeling, this energy for my fans, making this show for my fans. I’m so happy to make my fans happy for that one moment. I'm so glad to make my fans happy around the world."
Silva is doing this for you. Or because of you. Something like that. It doesn't really matter, really, because he goes on, and that's all needs to be said on the good days. But what about the bad ones?
It was in July 2011 when UFC president Dana White first said he'd like to see Silva retire. That was right after Silva was brutally knocked out by Leben. Since then, Silva has rebounded, winning two of his three fights. None of them were particularly easy. All of them were fairly physical, and yes, violent. Cung Le tagged Silva plenty of times when they fought. Rich Franklin landed 126 strikes against him. Stann knocked him down once and rattled his bell several other times. This is basically how Silva has always fought. Earlier in his career, he was the ultimate berserker, charging forward with aggressive barrages that would often end in a clinch and the trading of sharp, angled blows. In his recent fights, he has resorted to a slightly more conservative style, trying to draw his opponent to him.
But that's the only small concession. The end result is still the same. He still refuses to give ground. When someone comes at him, he anchors his feet and puts up his dukes. Your fists vs. his. Your chin vs. his. An old gunslinger to the end.
Is this something we can continue to remain happy about? With added attention on brain injury in contact sport athletes in recent years, we owe it to the men who risk their health to entertain us to ask when enough is enough.
Let's face it, the win over Stann would be a perfect ending. Silva, now four months from his 37th birthday, has nothing left to prove to anyone. He hasn't for years. But he had the chance to fight in his home nation of Brazil and his adopted country of Japan in his last two fights. He can walk away after creating one last electric moment. I do believe that every great gets that last moment in the spotlight, and maybe this is it. I'm not going to pretend to be smart enough to tell the future. Maybe Silva goes on and wins three fights in a row. Who knows? But it's certainly a risk he doesn't have to take. And I can't be the only one who would think it fitting to send him out on a high note. Perfect endings aren't always there for the taking, and this one is there for him, right here, right now.
I'm not delusional. I don't expect him to take it. The old warrior is riding high, a well-deserved ride on cloud nine. As close as I am to the sport, as close as I get to sit to the cage, it's impossible to understand what it feels like to have all those eyes directed at you, the applause and screams of euphoria washing over you. But I can see how it can be addictive. I can see how it would be a high worth chasing, even when it seems nearly unobtainable.
So I understand that most likely, Silva will fight on, caught between divisions, struggling to hold on to his youth, trying to prove he's more than just a late-career gatekeeper. A consummate showman and personable ambassador, he deserves better than all that. Regardless of what we think, he'll choose his own terms. Let's just hope he chooses them wisely.